Pleasant surprises on the road to "darkness"

Hard to believe we've been in business for a little over a year. During that time, hundreds of hobbyists have gotten to experience "The Tint", and have been enjoying planning, creating and managing blackwater, botanical-based aquariums. Many of you had never really worked with this kind of aquarium until you found us, and your whole "tint experience" was maybe playing with some peat moss or a few Indian Almond leaves.

As our collective experiences have evolved, we've developed not only techniques, philosophies, and expectations of how these aquariums work- we've developed 'best practices" and a more keen understanding of the long-term management of blackwater, botanical-influenced systems.

In the years that I've been working with these types of aquariums- and since we've began offering botanical products for creating blackwater aquariums, we've made bunch of personal discoveries- some of which were pleasant surprise...Let's look at what we think are the top 4 pleasant surprises:

Blackwater aquariums can be surprisingly stable, easy to manage environments- Despite the potential perils that a low ph, low alkalinity environment could bring, I've personally discovered- along with many of you- that these systems are surprisingly consistent once established. After some initial pH swings of a few points in the first weeks of existence, it seems like every blackwater aquarium I've set up sort of "finds it's own rhythm" after a month or so. 

Once you develop- and stick to- a routine of botanical "stocking and replenishment" (i.e.; arriving at a quantity of leaves and other botanicals that gives your tank the desired effect), and establish a regular water exchange schedule, then maintaining the environmental parameters in the tank has proven to be no more difficult than any other, in our experience. Basic water quality management and husbandry techniques that apply to any other type of tank are just as valid in a blackwater system. The aquarium "C and C's"- Your good old common sense and consistent habits- get the job done!

The fishes...oh, the fishes- Yeah, it's not a secret that many of the most popular aquarium fishes come from blackwater environments, so you'd figure it would be a no-brainer that they'd look good in such an aquarium. And you're correct! What's been really interesting to me is that I've even kept, for example, Tetras, which I know have been captive bred, hard water-acclimated stock for a few generations- in these systems, and the look even better! Something about eons of adaptation to this type of environment that even a few dozen captive-bred generations hasn't diminished.

There is something about the tannins, the lower pH, the soft water- and I think, the overall, darker environment and the presence of more natural "feeling" materials, like leaves and seed pods- in a blackwater, botanical-based system which makes the fishes feel more comfortable. As simple as that, And we know that a more comfortable, better-adjusted fish leads a healthier, longer, and more reproductively abundant life. In fact, since our office blackwater tanks has been up (about 9 months now), we've had spawns of Pencilfish, Sailfin Tetras, 2 Hyphessobrycon species, Apistogramma, and on at least one occasion, some Otocinculus. And those were just "incidental" spawnings, which we did not plan or encourage.

Plants grow pretty nicely in blackwater tanks if their needs are met- I'm not the only one who's done this. Many, many of you have. And many before you, which kept plants like Cryptocoryne, etc. in tannin-stained waters with success. However, for some odd reason, the mainstream hobby view was- and is- that plants in general cannot do well in the darker environment of a blackwater aquarium. Now, part of the reason for this thinking is that, in wild blackwater environments you don't find tons of aquatic plants- so right there, we have a message form nature telling us "This probably isn't a good idea..." Right? Well, not really. The reality is that, with their needs taken care of, including more light to penetrate the darker water for some species-many plants do quite well. In fact, many beautiful planted blackwater aquariums are starting to up. 

To me, this is an instance where there was good reason why people had the attitude they did about the subject. However, thanks to some diligent hobbyists simply doing something instead of listening to the naysayers, we're seeing a lot of really cool displays emerge. Sure, these may not be as optimal for every variety of plant as a highly-controlled, thoughtfully-managed dedicated planted aquarium, but we are seeing much success where previously it was sort of a "no-go" subject. There is still a lot of room for hobbyist participation and experimentation in this area- so what are you waiting for?

You're not all that freaked out about biofilms, decomposing leaves, and a little algae now and then- Yeah! You've made the "mental shift" to accepting what a truly "natural-looking" aquarium looks and functions like. You understand that exposed surfaces of materials like seed pods and leaves can and will will recruit biofilms and the occasional algal growth. And you get that biofilms are a huge benefit to many animals, like our ornamental shrimp, catfishes, and grazing fishes. You also realize that many of these biofilms and the occasional accompanying algal growth are signs that your system is doing what it's supposed to do. It's supporting a population of organisms, many of which perform beneficial nutrient processing functions- just as they do in nature. And they are often "ephemeral", gradually declining, and in some tanks, never making an appearance at all. And you know, you can remove it if you can't handle it...

What's more, we're realizing that the aesthetics of decomposing leaves and biofilms in the aquarium offers us as hobbyists an opportunity to see nature as it really is. It's not neatly organized rows of perfectly manicured plans and sterile white sand. Rather, nature is a dynamic, vibrant, earthy, and altogether random association of life forms, growing, thriving, and functioning in a way that has little regard for our aesthetic taste. We have to make the decision to accommodate nature and its "desires" in a botanical-influenced blackwater aquariums. Sure, we set the "stage" with our wood, leaves, and botanicals. Yet nature has the final say in how it all plays out. Accepting this is a beautiful and evolving philosophy in the hobby, which I'm very proud to be associated with.

So, while the "road to darkness" is not all "unicorns and candy canes", with everything super easy and smooth- it certainly has proven to be an educational, enlightening, and ultimately satisfying sector of the aquarium hobby for an increasingly larger number of aquarists. And more important- blackwater, botanical-style aquarium have given numerous hobbyists a new creative outlet- a "testbed" for new ideas, new ways to maintain our favorite fishes, or to acclimate new, more challenging ones into captivity. 

The frontier of blackwater aquariums is evolving, growing, and changing every day, thanks to the efforts, enthusiasm, and bold nature of YOU- the hobbyists who make dreams become realities; contribute to the body of knowledge, and push the limits.

Keep learning. Keep sharing. Keep pushing. Stay adventurous. Stay defiant. Stay engaged.

And stay wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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